Seizing the Gold of Spain: the Action off
Considered an act of piracy by Spain
and ‘a necessity of war’ by the United Kingdom
, the Anglo-Spanish fight off Portugal
The officer in command of the treasure-ships, Rear-admiral Jose
de Bustamante y Guerra (born Ontaneda 1 April 1759 – died
Bustamante y Guerra was one of the most experienced officers in
the Spanish Navy. From 1789 to 1794, he served as the captain of
the Atrevida, one of the two ships of the Alejandro Malaspina
scientific expedition. Bustamante
y Guerra was promoted to ‘Brigadier de la Real Armada’ (Rear-admiral
of the Royal Navy) in 1794 after he returned to
On 13 September 1796, Carlos IV appointed Bustamante y Guerra to
the Governorship of Montevideo. The out-going governor, Antonio Olaguer
y Feliu Heredia Lopez y Donce, was officially replaced on 11 February
1797. The next year, the new governor married Maria
In 1804, Bustamante y Guerra was himself replaced by Pascual Ruiz
de Huidobro (1752-1813) and left
‘Dollars and ingots of gold’: the Treasure Ships
The Spanish squadron was composed of four frigates: Fama (which
replaced the frigate Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion), Medea (the
flagship), Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes, and
The warships had been assigned to transport and protect a valuable cargo of gold, silver and commercial commodities. Spanish government documents say 4,736,153 pesos of bullion was loaded aboard the four frigates: 1,269,669 pesos in gold and 2,158,850 pesos in silver for private individuals, along with 1,307,634 pesos in silver for the King’s government.
The total value of the squadron’s cargo was, by 1804 standards, considerable. After seizing and selling the remaining three-quarters of the cargo, the British government received almost a million pounds (900,000 pounds sterling – or $4,095,000 at the 1804 exchange rate of $4.55 for one pound sterling):
The 1804 sale generated about $72,150,000 (in 2006 dollars) for the British government.
As the cargo was sold soon after it was seized, the value of the
gold and silver aboard these frigates pales in comparison to modern
estimates of unsalvaged treasure wrecks (the Spanish treasure-ship Nuestra
Senora de Deliverance, for example, was lost on 1 November 1755
with a cargo estimated in 2003 at $3.2-billion US). However, a useful
comparison might be made with the 34-gun Spanish frigate Juno,
The four frigates left
His Majesty’s Captains:
Unknown to the Spanish, the Royal Navy had made plans to intercept
the squadron before it could reach
Each of the British captains was a highly-experienced officer (in later years, all of them reached flag-rank and one of them, briefly, became an Admiral of the Fleet).
Captain (later Admiral Sir) Graham Moore (born
The commander of HMS Medusa, Captain (later Vice-admiral
Sir) John Gore (born
Captain (later Rear-admiral) Samuel Sutton (1760-1832) began his naval career in 1777 as a midshipman on the 74-gun HMS Monarch. He was promoted to Post-Captain on 27 June 1797. Sutton briefly commanded HMS Victory under Vice-admiral Nelson. Later posted to HMS Amphion, Sutton was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Red in 1821.
The commander of HMS Lively, Captain (later Admiral of the
Fleet Sir) Graham Eden Hamond (30 December 1779 –
20 December 1862), had served at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
He succeeded to his father’s 1783 baronetcy in 1828. His promotion
to Rear-admiral came on 22 July 1830. Nominated to the Order of the
‘A tremendous explosion’: Nuestra Senora de Las Mecedes blows up
Captain Moore’s squadron was cruising off the coast of
The Spanish ships were sailing in the following
order: Fama, Medea, Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes,
“At 9:05 am, the Medusa placed herself within half pistol-shot, on the weather-beam of the Fama. Presently the Indefatigable took a similar station by the side of the Medea; and the Amphion and the Lively, as they came up, ranged alongside the Mercedes and Clara, the Amphion judiciously running to leeward of her opponent.”
“At this moment I observed the Admiral’s second astern, fire into the Amphion. The Admiral had fired a shot against us. I made the signal for close action, and in an instant, we were engaged from van to rear.”
The fighting commenced about 0958. At half pistol-shot range, the damage done by the experienced British gunners was terrible. The Spanish ships returned fire, but:
The final phase of the battle developed into a stern-chase between the fleeing Fama and the pursuing HMS Medusa and HMS Lively. It took almost three hours for the two British ships to overhaul Fama:
The action had cost the Royal Navy 10 casualties: two men killed
and four wounded in HMS Lively; three men wounded on HMS Amphion.
The loss for the Spaniards amounted to 388 casualties: two men killed
and 10 men wounded in Medea, 11 killed and 50 wounded in Fama;
seven killed and 20 wounded in
The remaining three frigates were taken to Gibraltar and then to
Medea was renamed HMS Imperieuse and
later served in the Atlantic and in the
Taken prisoner by the Royal Navy, Bustamante y Guerra returned to
On 4 March 1811, he replaced Antonio Gonzalez Mollinedo y Saravia
as Captain-General of Guatemala
’s New World possessions included four captain-generalships:
In October 2007, news reports suggested the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes had been found and some of her treasure salvaged. The American company involved, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., denied the claim – although it did say it was in the process of salvaging the cargo of another ship. The treasure aboard the Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes – often wrongly identified in news reports as a Spanish galleon – was estimated at $500-million.
Print Sources from http://www.google.books.com/:
a) James, William, The Naval History of Great Britain
b) Gardiner, Sir Robert, Memoir of Admiral Sir Graham Moore,
c) Urban, Sylvanius, ‘The Gentleman’s
Magazine’ (Volume 21),
d) Urban, Sylvanius, ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ (July,
e) The Annual Biography and Obituary (Vols. 17: 1833 and
f) Dodd, Charles R., The Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage of
 Gardiner, Sir Robert, The Memoir of Admiral Sir Graham Moore, p. 33.
 http://koti.mbnet.fi/felipe/Spain/spain.html and http://www.todoababor.es/datos_docum/hist_fr.htm.
 James, William, The
Naval History of
 Launched and commissioned
in 1804, HMS Lively was the newest ship of
 The Annual Biography and Obituary (1844), pp. 317-319.
 The Annual Biography and Obituary (1837), pp. 258-264.
 Urban, Slyvanius, ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, July 1832, p. 83-84.
 Dodd, Charles R., The
Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage of Great Britain
 Gardiner, Sir Robert, The Memoir of Admiral Sir Graham Moore, p. 30.
 James, William, The
Naval History of
 Gardiner, Sir Robert, The Memoir of Admiral Sir Graham Moore, p. 31.
 Ibid, p. 288.
 Ibid, p. 288.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2007
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